The 8 Most Common Rhythms (and how to simplify tricky rhythms)

Rhythm can be tricky.  What’s easy on the ears may look berzerk on the page. And vice versa.

And with all the different note values (whole, half,quarter, eighth, etc.), how can we make sense of it all?

Or better yet, how can we make this easy?

(This article does not deal with divisions like triplets)

Note Values (Rhythms) Like to be Doubled and Halved

The beauty of written rhythms is that each note value as double or half the next closest one.

  • A whole notes gets 4 beats
  • A half note gets 2 (half of 4).
  • A quarter gets 1 (half of 2).
  • And an eighth gets a half beat (half of 1).
  • And on and on through 16ths, 32nds, 64ths, and beyond.
Note Values rhythm

Note Values are either half or double the next closest note value.

In this way, music rhythm is like a fractal. It’s the same both large and small. If you zoom in on the small, it looks the same as the large.

We can use this to simplify how we think of rhythm.

Narrowing the Options, or, Taking a Count

Music is divided (on the written page) into measures (aka “bars”) and beats.

In a tune with a 4/4 time signature, each measure (or “bar”) contains 4 beats. And each beat gets a quarter note’s duration.

So each measure has a finite number of possible note value combinations.

Using only whole notes, half notes, dotted half notes, and quarters, we come to 8 possible combinations.

The 8 Most Common Rhythms


The Second Tier of the 8 Most Common Rhythms

These 8 rhythms in a bar of 4/4 can, like the notes themselves, be halved or doubled.

When we half each note in these rhythms, we get the next “tier” of rhythms, which include eighth notes:

  • The whole notes become half notes.
  • The half notes become quarter notes.
  • The dotted half notes become dotted quarter notes.
  • The quarter notes become eighth notes.

So with eighths as our smallest note value, every two beats will form one of our 8 most common rhythms.

The rhythms will sound the same as their double-value counterparts, if perhaps at a different speed.

The rhythms in the second column (tier 2) will sound the same and their double-value counterparts in column one, if perhaps at a different speed.

The Third Tier of the 8 Most Common Rhythms

When our smallest note value is a sixteenth note, our 8 rhythms will all happen within the space of one beat.

There are only these 8 possible rhythms within each beat, with the sixteenth note as the smallest note value.

  • The half notes become quarter notes.
  • The quarter notes become eighth notes.
  • The dotted quarter notes become dotted eighth notes.
  • The eighth notes become sixteenth notes.

Again, each possible rhythm will sound exactly the same as it’s double-valued “cousins”. It just happens within a smaller number of beats on the page (which usually means it’s played faster).

How to Figure Out Tricky Rhythms

When we come across a tricky rhythm in our music, we can use our 8 common rhythms to simplify it and make sense of it.

We can take each beat or two and compare it to the common rhythms to see which it resembles. From there we can figure out how to count it, and ultimately how to play it.

Related: A Method to Master Tricky Rhythms

Double Everything, or Remove a Flag

One tactic we can use to simplify rhythms (especially those containing eighth and sixteenth notes) is to double everything.

This means that the eighths become quarters and the sixteenths become eighths.

In other words, we remove a “flag” from each note.

Once we recognize which of our 8 common rhythms we’re working with, we can count it as written. And once we can count it, we can work on playing it.

How to Start Using This Today

To begin using this method of simplifying rhythm, do this now:

  1. Look at any piece of music.
  2. Note the smallest subdivision (eighth, sixteenth, whichever).
  3. Select any rhythm, and note how it divides into 4.
  4. Compare the selected rhythm with the list of 8 common rhythms.
  5. Wash, rinse, repeat. After a few times, you’ll start to recognize them more quickly .

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two stellar teachers – one focused on the technical, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully. Click here for a sample formula.

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